Jewish Journal


June 13, 2013

South African Jews find a home in L.A.


Safari through African folklore embroidery piece completed by Leora Raikin.

Safari through African folklore embroidery piece completed by Leora Raikin.

How far can you travel in less than an hour? All the way to Capetown, South Africa, and back, if you are talking to Leora Raikin, a third-generation South African Jew who has lived in Los Angeles for the past 15 years. Raikin will speak about the Jews of South Africa on June 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center. She will also lead several workshops on African folk art embroidery this summer, as well as serve as a visiting artist at Camp Ramah. 

Raikin and her family came to Los Angeles, as did many other South African Jewish families, because they had family already living here. In Southern California in general, and in the Valley in particular, they found lots more South African Jews. “It’s a close community, where we know each other, and if we don’t, we certainly know people in common,” Raikin said.

For South African Jews here in L.A., the climate, and the topography of mountains and beaches is reminiscent of Cape Town, and Los Angeles’ thriving business climate provides opportunity much like they had in Johannesburg.

“We don’t live in L.A. because we don’t like South Africans,” Raikin said. Rather, they like Los Angeles because of the freedom the United States affords South African Jews, whether those who fled the apartheid regime, or those who’ve come recently, as the South African economy became more challenging, or because they perceive the tenor of their country becoming more anti-Israel.

Raikin says that Los Angeles’ South African Jews share a common Jewish education and Jewish literacy that puts them at ease with traditional ritual, even if they are not observant. Chabad of West Hills, in particular, has become popular among South African Jews from all over the Valley, and even the Westside of Los Angeles, because it has a rabbi, Avi Rabin, who grew up in South Africa and continues to celebrate South African customs, such as holding a braai — an Afrikaans word for a barbecue — at which they serve traditional South African Jewish foods, as well as comedy nights with South African comedians.

In some ways, the story of South Africa’s Jews parallels that of American Jewry: Both countries have offered refuge for Jews; for each, the greatest wave of immigration occurred from Eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century; both offered immense opportunity allowing Jews to transform themselves from a class of peddlers to industry leaders of overwhelmingly affluent communities. Yet, as Raikin explained recently, the question that has always been central to the drama of South African Jewry to this day is: “Do the Jews have a future in South Africa?”

Cape Town’s first synagogue, Tikvath Israel (Hope of Israel — a reference to the Cape of Good Hope), was built in 1849. Between 1880 and 1910, the Jewish community grew tenfold, from 4,000 to 40,000, the overwhelming majority of it Yiddish-speaking Lithuanians, including Raikin’s grandparents, who hailed from Vilna.

“When my grandparents arrived, they were fortunate to still be allowed in,” Raikin said. Despite the fact that many Jews fought in the Boer Wars in the 1930s, the Afrikaners and the National Party supported Nazi Germany and attempted to pass Nuremberg-type racial laws against the Jews. Although those laws failed, the government halted the immigration of European Jews after 1938. 

Leora Raikin. Photo by Leslie Talley

In 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa and passed apartheid (racial segregation) laws. Although the National Party had professed anti-Semitic polices earlier, they did not adopt these when they took power. To the contrary, they apologized to the Jewish community. Under apartheid, the Jewish community was granted all the privileges of other whites, and suffered none of the discrimination against blacks. South Africa was also one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and its premier was one of the first foreign heads of state to visit Israel, in 1953, beginning a long history of friendly relations between the countries. Even when South Africa limited what funds South Africans could send outside the country, an exception was made for donations to the State of Israel.

Many in the Jewish community disapproved of the National Party and apartheid, but rather than create conflict, they turned inward, focusing on Jewish traditions, their own community and on Israel. As Raikin explained, “It was this insulated community, [with a] very strong connection to Judaism; even if they weren’t religious, they would celebrate Shabbat [on] Friday evening with their families; they would light candles; they would keep kosher in the home.” At the community’s peak in the 1970s, 120,000 Jews were living in South Africa, 80 percent with roots from Eastern Europe.

In the kitchen, South African Jews adopted the local flavors into their traditional Eastern European dishes, so while chopped herring was often served at festive meals, it was paired with kichlach (a thin buscuit dusted with sugar), as well as teiglach (dough cooked in honey), ingberlach (a Passover carrot or ginger candy), pletzlach (walnuts and honey), mini-pap (a maize dish), fried fish balls and per-peri (fried giblets). Raikin often serves these dishes at her lectures.

The years of apartheid were also when many Jews rose to leadership roles in several industries in South Africa, including retail, finance, real estate, insurance and health care. Among the prominent South African Jews Raikin spoke of were Harry Oppenheimer of DeBeers, the diamond company; Sol Kerzner, who founded two of South Africa’s largest hotel and hospitality groups, and who developed the Mohegan Sun casino resort in Connecticut, the Atlantis Hotel and Resort in the Bahamas and the One&Only hotel chain; and Raymond Ackerman, a retailing magnate who was a partner of Raikin’s great grandfather's brother.

As individuals, many Jews were among the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. A greater percentage of the Jewish community was active in the struggle against apartheid than any other white group. Among the leaders of the movement, Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Ruth First and Denis Goldberg were all born Jewish, although they identified more strongly with leftist or communist political parties (Slovo, for example, headed the South African Communist Party and sat on the executive board of the African National Congress [ANC]). Oppenheimer, the chairman of the DeBeers diamond company, who was born Jewish but converted to the Anglican faith, used his influence in the business community to campaign for an end to apartheid. Helen Suzman was the only Progressive Party candidate elected to parliament and was the sole voice there unequivocally opposed to apartheid. Arthur Chaskalson and Harry Schwarz served on Nelson Mandela’s defense team. Nadine Gordimer, one of South Africa’s best-known writers, helped Nelson Mandela edit his speech in his own defense at the 1960s Rivonia trial for sabotage. When she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gordimer donated her prize money to the Congress of South African Writers. Synagogues in Johannesburg and Capetown provided support services for the black community, with nurseries, medical clinics, adult education programs and legal defense services.

The personal cost for resistance against the South African National Party was high: When Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, Goldberg, who was on trial with him, received the same sentence, as well. First was murdered. Sachs lost an eye and an arm. Attorney Rowley Arenstein was exiled for 33 years. Painter Arthur Goldreich was jailed. This was also true for individual students who protested against apartheid or refused military service, as many increasingly did. Lives were ruined.

In the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” the beauty of Capetown is clearly visible, but so is the government media clampdown that made it possible for Sixto Rodriguez’s songs to become so popular — while also unknown outside of South Africa.

“We all knew those [Rodriguez] songs, every single word of those songs we sang at Jewish summer camp, and we thought everyone in the world knew them,” Raikin said.

“By the time I got to university, in 1988, there was a state of emergency; you couldn’t gather in groups of three or more, and if you were caught disturbing or agitating in any way, you were expelled from the university and put in jail.” The message was: Get your degree and leave the country or toe the line. “The activists that did stand up led very erratic lives, moving from house to house and trying not to get caught. Now they’re seen as heroes, because they were trying to make changes.” 

Despite the actions of Jewish individuals and institutions, South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Rabbinate were more reluctant to stand up to the government and did not denounce apartheid until the mid-1980s. The State of Israel, for its part, was faulted for maintaining trade and military relations with the government, in violation of international trade sanctions. Israel claimed that that it was neither in the best interests of Israel nor its large community of South African Jews to be cut off and isolated. 

History, however, moves at its own pace. In January 1989, entrenched Conservative President P.W. Botha had a stroke, and he was forced to resign the following month. F.W. de Klerk, also thought to be conservative, succeeded Botha, but shortly thereafter repealed the ban on political parties such as the ANC, released political prisoners not guilty of common crimes, restored press freedom and ended the death penalty. In 1990, Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Apartheid was dismantled in a series of negotiations from 1990-1993 culminating in an election, in which all South Africans could vote, that elected Mandela as president. 

“It’s an absolute miracle that the transition happened with so little bloodshed,” Raikin now says. Raikin who had graduated the University of Cape Town with a master’s degree in market research, began to work with voices of the “rainbow nation,” learning and explaining the various communities to one another, which informed and expanded her understanding of African tribal art.

While Mandela himself thanked the Jewish community for its support and appointed Jews to prominent positions (his former defense attorney, Chaskalson, became Chief Justice of South Africa’s Supreme Court), and even made a state visit to Israel in 1999, the ANC seemed to hold a grudge against Israel for its support of South Africa during the apartheid regime. Although the Arab nations and China continued to maintain trade relations during the same period, it was Israel that was singled out. South Africa became increasingly anti-Israel, with anti-Zionist rhetoric in the national media fanning the flames, according to Raikin.

As a result, South African Jews have continued to emigrate, with South Africa’s Jewish population decreasing to 60,000-70,000. At the same time, the South African Jewish community has become more isolated and more Orthodox, with new shuls being opened by Ohr Somayach and Chabad. For Raikin, the question of “Do the Jews have a future in South Africa?” became pressing. For her, the answer is that the Jews of South Africa have a future — in Los Angeles. Three generations of her family live here now, completing a journey begun in Vilna, halfway around the world.

“We, as a family, are so grateful that we now live in a country like America that openly supports the State of Israel, that, after Israel, is the best place to be Jewish in the world.”

About seven years ago, Raikin began teaching African folklore embroidery and discovered a way to tell the story of the South African people, and that of South Africa’s Jews. Since then, she has taught more than 10,000 people about tribal arts and crafts, embroidering a rich thread in the quilt work that is the story of the Jewish people.

Raikin’s program at the Skirball Cultural Center is currently sold out. For more information, visit skirball.org.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.

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